Friday, July 3, 2015

World War I Mountain Warfare

During our stay in Cortina we caught the cable car up to Mount Lagazuoi, a 2,800m peak in the Dolomites from which there are 360° views of the breathtaking mountains. However, beneath this beautiful landscape lies a labyrinth of tunnels which tell a more tragic story.

The cable car up to Mount Lagazuoi

Beautiful views in all directions

The Dolomites have always formed a physical and political border between Italy, Austria and Germany. One of the most tragic stories in the history of the Dolomites was the war for this border during World War I on the Italian Front. This was a series of battles between Austria-Hungary and Italy fought between 1915 and 1918. The front soon bogged down into trench warfare, but at very high altitudes, and thousands of soldiers died in futile battles on what the Italians call Il Fronte Verticale. Soldiers on both sides excavated miles of tunnels and galleries in the mountains, built temporary emplacements and fired at one another, without really changing the front line.

Look closely at the exit in the sheer cliff (bottom left of the picture)

Rifugio Lagazuoi is a starting point to visit the restored fortifications of the World War I Open Museum and it is possible to see reminders of the mountain warfare that raged for so long. We put on our hardhats and headlamps and descended on the via ferrata - a rocky descent which relies on chains for support - into the gallery of tunnels inside the mountain. Even at the end of June there were icy patches inside the tunnels; it's hard to imagine what it was like in the winter of 1916 when 10 000 men died in avalanches alone.

The first part of the via ferrata

The military 'highway' on the surface of the mountain

One of the staircases going deep inside the mountain
(It is pitch black inside)

The exit to a lookout post

The view from the lookout post

The tunnels we visited were made by Italian soldiers who tunnelled stubbornly through the mountain in order to surprise the Austrian troops stationed on the summit. With metal ropes, stairs and ladders still intact, these tunnels show an incredible feat of engineering.

A machine gun gallery

Fortifications and sandbags at a lookout post

An officer's room inside the mountain

Scraps of barbed wire and wood lying on the mountain

Many of the surrounding mountains are also riddled with the network of tunnels, and visitors can see bunkers, barbed wire, trenches, sandbags and other remnants of the war in the mountains. It is one of the most fascinating places we've ever visited - a challenging contrast of horror and beauty.

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